Immigration reform divides GOP

Immigration lobbyists are getting ready for a busy 2005 after assurances by House leadership that immigration reform would top the next session’s legislative agenda.

But deep divisions within Republican ranks over what to do, and the existence of several diametrically conflicting bills on the subject, mean that major legislation will be tough to pass.
Immigration lobbyists are getting ready for a busy 2005 after assurances by House leadership that immigration reform would top the next session’s legislative agenda.

But deep divisions within Republican ranks over what to do, and the existence of several diametrically conflicting bills on the subject, mean that major legislation will be tough to pass.
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Rep. James Sensenbrenner

House leadership won majority-caucus support for intelligence reform last week after promising to take up immigration early next year. Immigration hawks say the GOP leadership has undertaken to attach three provisions left out of the intel bill to the first must-pass legislation of the 109th Congress.

The provisions are:

• A national standard for driver’s licenses.

• A crack down on asylum seekers.

• The completion of a fence on the border near San Diego.

Since none of those is likely to pass the Senate, lobbyists expect a fierce battle between business, which fears that immigration restrictions will stanch the supply of low-wage workers, and groups that will stress the protectionist and national-security need to tighten border controls.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) is the most vocal champion of a national driver’s license standard, but he insists those provisions are security issues rather than issues of immigration.

He told reporters after the vote that “the immigration issue is going to be a very complicated one and should be decoupled from these three measures.”

A national standard for driver’s licenses and a crackdown on bogus asylum seekers will likely trigger furious debate once the provisions are offered up in the House.
Most proposals for immigration reform come in the form of guest-worker programs.

A number of bipartisan bills were introduced last session that proposed the expansion of a guest-worker program, along with one by Arizona Republicans that paralleled some of the reforms hinted at by the White House.

Immigration reform has bound a number of disparate industries together, from Maryland crab farmers to the Chamber of Commerce. They are concerned that immigration caps will make it impossible to find low-wage seasonal workers.

The AFL-CIO, which has previously opposed immigration reform, is now offering lukewarm support because its fastest growing branch, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), is a huge proponent of guest-worker programs.

The issue divides Republicans between protectionists and cultural conservatives on the one hand and business-friendly fiscal conservatives on the other. Congressional leaders in both chambers face the task of bridging a fundamental gap between the two if a bill or provision were ever to reach a floor vote.

Most supporters of guest-worker programs say the current system is broken and will never stem the flow of illegal immigrants into this country.

Sensenbrenner and others, most vocally Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), have argued that border security is not tight enough and that any measure to recognize immigrants who have come to this country unlawfully would only encourage more illegal immigration.

In truth, there is more than one deep division in GOP ranks, and new divisions emerge depending on the specifics of each piece of proposed legislation.

A bill introduced by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) that would have prevented hospitals from being reimbursed for medical care given to undocumented immigrants was defeated 331-88 in May. By contrast, the original House version of the intelligence reform bill that included Sensenbrenner’s provisions passed 236-75.

The issue is also tricky for Democrats, who could give President Bush more
credibility with Hispanic voters if he signs any major guest-worker legislation, especially legislation that would grant amnesty to illegals working in this country.

Such legislation would not get out of conference, according to at least one lobbyist. “If [the president] had any political capital to spend on immigration reform, it’s spent,” said Paul Egan, a lobbyist with the Federation of American Immigration Reform.
“The president claims it is not an amnesty. We claim that it is.”

Angela Kelley, the executive director of the National Immigration Forum, said that enforcement and security concerns are the most relevant but that she was confident the debate has been moving toward reform and the passage of a guest-worker program after years of outright hostility aimed at immigrants.